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Archaeology in north-eastern Syria was once a poor relation to the great sites that lie to the south and over the Iraqi border. Southern Mesopotamia is long established as the area that shows the urban roots of advanced civilisation. Ur may or may not be Abraham's birthplace but by the 3rd millennium BC it was certainly the centre of a sophisticated court society. Nineveh, lying adjacent to modern Mosul, rivals--and may surpass--Ur in antiquity and was an Assyrian centre by the end of the 2nd millennium BC.
Widespread looting and military action now make archaeological investigation next to impossible at such centres. But digging has continued over the border with Syria, and recent finds at the site of Tell Brak are producing new answers to the questions of where and when our kind of civilisation began.
It has long been known that the Akkadian king Naram-Sin had a palace here in the late 23rd century BC. Tell Brak lies in a fertile basin, and its logistics meant that the town commanded the routes that led to and from the Jazirah desert. Max …